2006 Conference General Sessions




Heidi Silver-Pacuilla
American Institutes for Research
1000 Thomas Jefferson St NW
Washington DC 20007
Day Phone: 202-403-5218
Fax: 202-403-5454
Email: hsilver-pacuilla@air.org

Presenter #2
Tracy Gray
American Institutes for Research
1000 Thomas Jefferson St. NW
Washington DC 20007
Day Phone: 202-403-6841
Fax: 202-403-5454
Email: tgray@air.org

This multimedia report provides a timely view of opportunities in the AT field and articulates tensions around which collaboration and dialogue will be most productive.

The passage of legislation such as IDEA 2004 and No Child Left Behind (2002) mandates that special education children be taught to the same standards as all children and holds schools accountable for their achievement. However, for the nearly 7 million children with special needs, taking full advantage of their rights to a high quality education requires support to learn in ways that work with their needs.

Assistive Technologies (AT) offer great promise for these children. The tremendous advances in technology in the past decade have led to the development of speech synthesis and recognition technology, interactive software, miniaturization and portability that already help these children achieve and thrive. The promise and potential of AT has never been greater. The question remains. What will it take for the field of assistive technology to seize the opportunities in order to help more children learn, achieve, and maximize their potential?

The National Center for Technology Innovation, (NCTI), is an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Educationís Office of Special Education Programs to foster networks of researchers and developers/manufacturers and distributors to help them innovate and bring technologies to market that have strong research and evaluation bases, usability tests, and high accessibility standards. Through the life of the Center, NCTI has developed timely and detailed surveys of research in content areas, examples of successful collaborations, and a wealth of knowledge about funding sources and guidelines.  

In broad ranging discussions and research over several years, NCTI had identified gaps in communication between stakeholder groups as a serious barrier to collaboration, ultimately affecting the development of high quality tools for students with special needs. In NCTI?s role as an information broker, we saw that the time was now to spark dialogue and discussion, identify key trends and tensions, and strengthen existing networks among diverse groups through collaboration.

In a series of forums conducted at trade shows and conference through the fall of 2004 and spring of 2005, NCTI posed the critical question above to diverse stakeholders. The forums revealed the dedication of many key leaders that has contributed to and sustained the field. They also revealed a range of complex external and internal factors that have converged, affecting the research, development, purchase, and implementation of AT throughout the nationís schools.  

AT has the potential to grow into a significantly larger share of the educational market and to serve more children more effectively if it addresses the current challenges identified in these discussions. This report provides a prismatic look at this dynamic field, illuminating the perspective of stakeholder groups as well as providing a unique synthesis. It is the intent of NCTI to improve understanding of opportunities within reach, promote collaboration, and encourage the development of technologies and implementation approaches that will create higher expectations for students with special needs and enable them to fulfill those expectations.

The Time is Now: Making the Most of Convergence
AT has been available for more than twenty years. Educators, researchers, developers, and manufacturers have been using computers and other technologies to create tools to help children with special needs learn. Yet the AT field and commercial sector has not been recognized externally as a discipline with identifiable work in scholarship, practice, and market.  

A number of current factors are converging to create new opportunities for students and the field. First, special education delivery now happens more often in the general classroom, not in segregated special needs classrooms; AT has proven instrumental in making the general curriculum accessible to these children. Second, current reporting mandates mean that school administrators are paying more attention to special needs children because their achievement now plays a critical role in the success of their entire school system. The third factor is the stunning innovation within technology itself, which has become easier to use, more powerful and robust, and available at lower costs, making it attractive as part of a school-wide solution.  

The convergence of these factors creates an unprecedented opportunity. AT has caught the attention of school administrators and technology coordinators under pressure to increase achievement levels of all students while balancing tightening budgets and staff who are dealing with increasing diversity in the classroom. However, for the field to fully leverage the momentum, it must resolve to address core challenges and respond with consensus to the opportunities.

Key Findings
The Key Findings report is gleaned from a comprehensive analysis of over thirteen hours of forum transcripts, representing a distinctive synthesis of cross-stakeholder group perspectives. It provides a timely view of opportunities in the AT field and commercial sector and articulates more precisely those areas in which collaboration and dialogue among stakeholders will be most productive.

Building Instructional and Leadership Capacity

Inadequate preparation, low awareness, and gaps in leadership exist at all levels of the education system undermining the implementation of AT. Few incentives or enforcement mechanisms of existing credentialing standards creates a weak link in the preparation of new teachers, resulting in waves of under-prepared professionals. While much training is available through statewide organizations and others, the capacity of these organizations is limited compared to the need.

Building capacity within teacher preparation programs and conducting outreach to school administrators and other leaders is critical  to educate and raise awareness among professionals to ensure the effective integration of AT for students with special needs.

Identifying and Leveraging Existing Networks and Resources

The AT field lacks a recognized independent advocate and information broker. The needs of the AT field? Research, development, funding, implementation, and marketing are not well articulated and publicized. Other related agencies, organizations, and consumers cannot identify a source of reliable and objective information about the field or envision how their resources could be brought to bear on identified needs. The lack of a reliable source of objective information on product development standards and product effectiveness leads to duplication of effort and precludes consumers from becoming informed.

The field needs a resource and dissemination advocate to raise awareness and visibility of the field and its consumer needs as well as circulate information back to stakeholder groups.

Addressing the Pace of Innovation vs. Implementation

Developers offer a host of innovative, feature-rich products, but offerings may be too complex for classroom adoption. The relentless pace of technology innovation provides increasing possibilities for new features and affordability of innovative applications and devices. The realities of using AT in schools, however, do not necessarily support these potentials and increasingly complex products threaten to discourage implementation.  

Dialogue across stakeholder and consumer groups about this tension could promote consensus about those features and products that students need most and about the level of technical knowledge required for teachers and other users to implement feature-rich products.

Developing a Research Agenda

All stakeholder groups expressed concern about the growing pressure to address the mandate for evidence-based research and product adoption but there is no consensus among stakeholders about a common core of objectives. The existing research base is insufficient to meet this mandate and stakeholder groups vary significantly in their capacity to engage in such research. Additionally, product development cycles are at odds with funding and research cycles, which are much longer.

Setting an agenda on research outcomes is critical for the aggregation of data necessary to influence policy and maintain the fieldís credibility within the accountability climate.

Balancing Universal Design and Assistive Technology

Consumer products and base technologies are increasingly incorporating accessibility and universal design features. Innovative applications and equipment can now be developed that rely on those features. There

is concern, however, that purchasers with an understanding of universal design will overlook customized technologies vital to the learning needs of millions of students.  

Awareness and communication on the complementary nature of universal design and AT are necessary to educate consumers and purchasers. More reliable information needs to be provided to ensure that the needs of students are not lost in the debate between the merits of AT and universal design.  

The field is at a tipping point defined in large measure by policy mandates changing the educational landscape and the pace of innovation changing the technological landscape. To not seize this opportunity to promote the potential of AT as a powerful part of an achievement solution would consign the field to the margins of the educational reform effort.  

NCTI is committed to pursuing the recommendations in this report with stakeholder and outside groups through fostering collaboration and coordination of efforts. The enormous work that has brought the field to the level of innovation, implementation, and policy support that it now enjoys deserves to be maximized in order that more children are enabled to fulfill their academic and social potential.

Presenting the Findings in public forums allows the dialogue to continue and engages more stakeholders in the effort to build consensus and leverage the momentum to make a difference.

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